Little Known Facts: Michelangelo
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, (1475 – 1564)
As I was doing my research for my series about artists who died too young, I found there were many interesting little known facts about other artists who may not have died very young but left an indelible mark on the world through their creative process. One such artist is Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, better known as Michelangelo.
So much is known about him. Who doesn’t know about his famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Or the equally famous back wall of the Sistine Chapel, Judgment Day? Or his famous marble statues of David and the Pieta? He was a wonderful artist, indeed.
The Secretive Artist
However few people know that he was so secretive that he kept a drape around the scaffold while painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel saying that it was to keep paint splatters from the walls but in truth it was to keep prying eyes away from him while he was painting. Once when he heard the door quietly open and close, he decided to surprise his intruder by throwing boards down from above. Sure that this would teach the spy a lesson, imagine his surprise to find it was the Pope himself whom he had rained upon with board. He actually ran to a nearby town until the papal anger cooled.
“How you do your work is a portrait of yourself.”— Author Unknown
Believed to be demon-possessed
He also hated to quit working just because the sun went down and hating to carve by lamplight because it proved inadequate. So he devised his own helmet that he could mount a candle upon so he could continue carving on his marble creations long into the night. This was actually a genius invention, getting light close to his work while leaving his hands free. However it also cast some pretty strange shadows on the walls and curtains, leaving the alarmed neighbors thinking that he was demon possessed. He was just anti-social enough that this wasn’t a hard conclusion for the neighbors to jump to. Poor misunderstood artist.
How much do you know about Michelangelo?
Raised in another family circle
Did you know that Michelangelo’s mother died after a long illness when Michelagelo was only 6, leaving him with his father and other siblings? Because his father was not in a position to care for a young child still in need of nursing, before his mother’s death he was placed with a wet-nurse and stone-cutter’s family for several years. The nurse’s husband, the stone-cutter allowed the boy to handle his tools, and so from an early age the sights and sounds of sculpting were instilled. This may be where his early passion came from.
Never accepted by his father
Did you know that Michelangelo’s father did not approve of his pursuit of art? He was sent to school but had no interest in any subject other than art. Soon his father had to reluctantly let him pursue it. His father, Ludovico de Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni, was the son of a well-to-do small-scale banker who loved fast women and slow horses. For several generations, his family had been bankers, but when the bank failed along with Michelangelo’s grandfather, his father had to take a government position in Caprese, where Michelangelo was born. When Michelangelo’s father inherited the property and bills his father left him, he determined at once to again build up the family fortune. He intended for his sons to go into professions that would continue this trend of building up the legacy and not bringing it down. Art was not considered a profession that would do anything to build the family funds or family name. He was pushing his sons including Michelangelo and his brothers to consider careers in law and business. For the rest of his life Michelangelo tried to win the approval of his father, but with every accomplishment, he received only cool acknowledgement from his father.
I know exactly how that feels. My father did not approve either and with every commission and painting I finished I received only a, “Hmm” or a “that’s nice, Neecie,” from the man whose appreciation I wanted most. I must be in good company if the great and accomplished Michelangelo couldn’t do any better at pleasing his male parental unit.
“A good statue can be rolled down hill without damage.”— Michelangelo
Did you know that at the age of seventeen, when Michelangelo was being apprenticed with the sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni, he got into a fight with another pupil, who struck him and broke his nose? This feature of disfigurement is conspicuous in all the portraits of Michelangelo from that time on. It obviously didn’t heal well. It was also obvious that he was somewhat of a hot-head, often getting into brawls and fights.
“It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”
— Michelangelo in explaining how he made his statue of David.
Only signed one statue in his lifetime
Did you know that Michelangelo was only 24 when he finished the sculpture, the Pieta, which is the depiction of the grieving mother Mary holding the body of Jesus. The piece has been regarded as one of the world’s great masterpieces of sculpture and was so beautiful that when it was opened to the public after it’s creation at St Peter’s Basillica, Michelangelo hid behind a curtain to be able to hear what was being said about it. He expected great applause and praise. Mostly people were amazed that a kid of 24 had created such a masterpiece and felt sure they were all being lied to. It had to have been done by some other “more experienced” master. And certainly it could not have been done by anyone from Florence since that was considered a second-rate place to be from in those days. Enraged, Michelangelo being a hot-headed, passionate artist and a youth as well, waited till the middle of the night, crept in and carved his name in the sash across Mary’s chest. It reads "Michelangelo Buonarroti, the Florentine, made this." If he had been caught by the Swiss Guard, he would have been swiftly beheaded before being questioned.
You have to understand that signing a sculpture was just not done at that time because it was considered haughty and prideful, and certainly the pope wanted to keep artists from sin of pride, so the practice was more or less forbidden. When the inscription was discovered, Michelangelo had to be pardoned by the pope, and most likely had to promise not to sign another work again. We do know that in eighty-nine years, this is the only work that bears his name.
Did you know that he may have been arrogant but he was also self-loathing? Many artists are. I know that I am often overcome with a wave of guilt over all the things I have handled badly in my life. It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that when painting the Judgment Day on the back wall of the Sistine Chapel, that Michelangelo painted himself into the painting as one of the damned souls, skinned and being beaten by a demon. It is part of who we are as artists to see ourselves that way from time to time. I know I have.
Artist and Poet
Did you know that on top of everything else, Michelangelo was also a poet? He wrote many poems and they can be found, many of them, online free to the searcher. For a young man who did not do well in school, I think he had a fine handle on writing as well as art. He wrote over 300 sonnets and madrigals. Here is just one of such sonnet.
To The Supreme Being
HE prayers I make will then be sweet indeed,
If Thou the spirit give by which I pray:
My unassisted heart is barren clay,
Which of its native self can nothing feed:
Of good and pious works Thou art the seed,
Which quickens only where Thou say'st it may;
Unless Thou show to us Thine own true way,
No man can find it: Father! Thou must lead.
Do Thou, then, breathe those thoughts into my mind
By which such virtue may in me be bred
That in Thy holy footsteps I may tread;
The fetters of my tongue do Thou unbind,
That I may have the power to sing of Thee,
And sound Thy praises everlastingly.
by: Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564)
I feel that way too
To me this is such a pure and noble prayer/poem. The master artist acknowledges that all inspiration, voice and thought comes from the Father and only He can make the seed grow the way He wants it to. I often feel this way too. I remember working on a painting late into the night and when I woke the next morning I was amazed by what I had done... as if I had not done it at all but God must have touched it up while I slept. Also I remember reading that Michelangelo felt like a desperate sinner, painting himself into the Judgment Day painting as one of the damned souls. It makes his lines that “the Father lead him and direct his footsteps” even more powerful, that he may sing His praises all his life. Me too, Lord. Me too.
Chastised for arrogance
Did you know that Michelangelo was so often saying the wrong thing that he angered many of the people who would have been his greatest allies? It is recorded that once seeing Raphael with his many followers and apprentices in the streets of Rome, he said rather loudly that painting was a second-rate art form, good only for old women and nuns. Only Sculpture was an art for true men. This of course, angered the great painter Raphael and his entourage. It was shortly thereafter that the Pope asked Michelangelo to PAINT the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, which must have come as quite a blow to the sculptor, especially after making such a rude remark to other painters. However, he later took it as a chastisement from God for his arrogance, and set out to make the ceiling a sea of painted sculptures. And so it is.
“Trifles makes perfection and perfection is no trifle.”
Died at age 88
The many accomplishments and achievements of this great artist are so numerous that I would get boring to go on and on. These are just a few of the interesting things I have found about Michelangelo. He died at the age of 88, just three weeks before his 89th birthday, so he lived a long and productive life. The world is a richer place for his presence here.